Turkish efforts to stop traffickers from sending large "ghost ships" crammed with migrants towards Italy has sparked the surge in arrivals in Greece, the International Organisation for Migration says.
The migrants and refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe are increasingly travelling the eastern route from Turkey to the Greek islands, which have seen more arrivals since the beginning of the year than long-time top destination Italy, according to United Nations figures.
IOM spokesman Joel Millman said the main explanation for the surge in numbers of people arriving in Greece was a Turkish crackdown on traffickers' attempts to acquire large metal freighters to use as migrant "ghost ships" heading to Italy.
Towards the end of last year, traffickers began buying dilapidated freighters from scrap metal yards, filling them with hundreds of mainly Syrian refugees, and putting them on a GPS course towards Italy, with no crew on board, he said.
"We understand that quite a number of particularly Syrians were massed in Turkey waiting to go on one of these voyages, because they were directly bound for Italy and because the boats were considered much safer and much more sea-worthy than some of the boats that had gone out of Libya," Millman said.
Traffickers in some places even bought up cheap hotels to house migrants for what they expected would be a few days, but which turned into months after Turkey blocked access to the freighters.
Thousands of people who had already paid traffickers to take them to Italy were thus stuck in Turkey with no way to get to their destination and no refunds offered.
In the end, Millman said, many appeared to agree to a compromise, allowing the traffickers to get them to Greece, which is much closer and can be reached in small dinghies.
The result has been clear.
Some 124,000 refugees and migrants landed on the Greek islands during the first seven months of the year - up 750 per cent from last year, according to UN figures.
On the holiday island of Kos, where hundreds arrive daily in packed boats from Turkey, Greek police registration officers have been working around the clock to reduce the numbers of Syrian refugees stuck in miserable conditions.
A rudimentary processing centre set up in a stadium on Kos was running much more smoothly yesterday after police issued temporary travel papers to at least 1000 men, women and children who had been penned inside for up to a day without adequate shelter, food or drinking water.
But large numbers of refugees remained camped on a tree-lined coastal promenade outside the stadium waiting to register.
Around 7000 Middle Eastern migrants, mainly Syrians, reached the eastern Aegean Sea island last month - twice as many as in June - and up to 5000 are thought to be stuck there waiting for the documents that will let them travel on towards wealthier European countries.
An official for Doctors without Borders, which is helping refugees on Kos, noted the improvement but stressed that the refugees' situation remains far from desirable.
"There is still no care being provided for the refugees," Vangelis Orfanoudakis said. "Simply, the administrative process is more humane. But these people are getting no support, and no information on what they need to do."
The influx has overwhelmed authorities on tourism-reliant Kos. Refugees were first left to sleep rough in parks, archaeological sites and pavements.
Then, after complaints from locals, they were pushed to an old stadium that lacks basic facilities. A handful of police clerks struggled to control and register the crowd, twice using fire extinguishers to stop jostling.
Police flew in reinforcements to accelerate the process, and some 400 people boarded an Athens-bound ferry yesterday, a day after a further 1500 left by sea for the Greek capital. Many hundreds are expected to leave by ferry in coming days.
- AFP, AP